Books

Power Shifts: Congress and Presidential Representation (University of Chicago Press, Chicago Studies in American Politics series), 2021. Amazon.

That the president uniquely represents the national interest is a political truism, yet this idea has been transformational, shaping the efforts of Congress to remake the presidency and testing the adaptability of American constitutional government.


The emergence of the modern presidency in the first half of the twentieth century transformed the American government. But surprisingly, presidents were not the primary driving force of this change—Congress was. Through a series of statutes, lawmakers endorsed presidential leadership in the legislative process and augmented the chief executive’s organizational capacities.

But why did Congress grant presidents this power? In Power Shifts, John A. Dearborn shows that legislators acted on the idea that the president was the best representative of the national interest. Congress subordinated its own claims to stand as the nation’s primary representative institution and designed reforms that assumed the president was the superior steward of all the people. In the process, Congress recast the nation’s chief executive as its chief representative.

As Dearborn demonstrates, the full extent to which Congress’s reforms rested on the idea of presidential representation was revealed when that notion’s validity was thrown into doubt. In the 1970s, Congress sought to restore its place in a rebalanced system, but legislators also found that their earlier success at institutional reinvention constrained their efforts to reclaim authority. Chronicling the evolving relationship between the presidency and Congress across a range of policy areas, Power Shifts exposes a fundamental dilemma in an otherwise proud tradition of constitutional adaptation.


Podcast: New Books Network

Phantoms of a Beleaguered Republic: The Deep State and the Unitary Executive (with Stephen Skowronek and Desmond King, Oxford University Press), 2021. Amazon.

A powerful dissection of one of the fundamental problems in American governance today: the clash between presidents determined to redirect the nation through ever-tighter control of administration and an executive branch still organized to promote shared interests in steady hands, due deliberation, and expertise.


President Trump pitted himself repeatedly against the institutions and personnel of the executive branch. In the process, two once-obscure concepts came center stage in an eerie faceoff. On one side was the specter of a "Deep State" conspiracy—administrators threatening to thwart the will of the people and undercut the constitutional authority of the president they elected to lead them. On the other side was a raw personalization of presidential power, one that a theory of "the unitary executive" gussied up and allowed to run roughshod over reason and the rule of law. The Deep State and the unitary executive framed every major contest of the Trump presidency. Like phantom twins, they drew each other out.


These conflicts are not new. Stephen Skowronek, John A. Dearborn, and Desmond King trace the tensions between presidential power and the depth of the American state back through the decades and forward through the various settlements arrived at in previous eras. Phantoms of a Beleaguered Republic is about the breakdown of settlements and the abiding vulnerabilities of a Constitution that gave scant attention to administrative power. Rather than simply dump on Trump, the authors provide a richly historical perspective on the conflicts that rocked his presidency, and they explain why, if left untamed, the phantom twins will continue to pull the American government apart.


Reviews: The New Rambler, 3Streams, Law & Liberty, Balkinization symposium, American Review of Public Administration, Foreign Affairs, La Vie des idées

Coverage: YaleNews, Christian Science Monitor

Podcasts: The Scholars' Circle, New Books Network